Despite anti-immigrant sentiment from politicians, refugees continue migrating to state

David Fishman, Reporter

Home to more than 2,400 new refugees from 29 nations that migrated in the past year, residents say Illinois has historically been an open and welcoming place for asylum-seekers and immigrants alike.

“Illinois is easier to resettle because it’s so diverse,” said Suzanne Akhras Sahloul, a Syrian immigrant and founder of the Syrian Community Network. “It’s important to see people who are of different ethnic backgrounds because then that makes our transition a little bit easier.”

But following Governor Bruce Rauner’s call in November to halt the flow of Syrian refugees into Illinois and Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric on immigrants, including a proposal to temporarily bar all Muslims from entering the United States, some say the state may turn in a different direction.

“Donald Trump has drawn out this more extremist, nationalist vein of Americans that were not as empowered-feeling as before he was running for president,” said Renner Larson, communications director for the Chicago office of the Council On American-Islamic Relations. “That’s something that we as a nation really need to reflect on and work to counter.”

In Evanston, offensive vandalism at Northwestern’s Alice Millar Chapel last month preceded a gathering of local religious and social justice leaders rallying against “hateful rhetoric” and handing out posters illustrating support for local refugees.

Two Weinberg freshmen vandalized Alice Millar using spray paint to write homophobic, racist and Islamophobic messages along with Trump’s name. The students were charged with institutional vandalism and hate crime to a place of worship and placed on interim suspension, which bars them from campus, University spokesman Bob Rowley said.

Tahera Ahmad, director of interfaith engagement at NU, who spoke at the event, said the rally was the second in a series aimed at sending a message of support to those facing persecution.

“Many (refugees) are really scared,” Ahmad said. “They want to figure out ways to assimilate quickly and be accepted, but unfortunately many of them feel like they have to give up their cultural identity and heritage to do that. … They feel like they have to give up who they are.”

Despite Rauner’s statements, Illinois has accepted 70 Syrian refugees and more than 700 refugees total since the Paris terrorist attacks.

At Evanston Township High School, students from refugee families are assisted in adapting to a new environment. About 35 students from refugee families attend the public high school, said ETHS Bilingual Education Program coordinator Jenny Neal, who helps students learn English and adapt to American-style education. Neal said the refugees come from a variety of places including Rwanda, Afghanistan and Nepal.

But the city itself has no programs earmarked for incoming refugees, said Evonda Thomas-Smith, director of the Health and Human Services Department. Instead, she said the city acts as an intermediary for other nonprofits and religious organizations which assist in resettlement.

For decades, Illinois has been a haven for refugees seeking safety from civil war and violence in their home countries, but increased scrutiny following global terrorist attacks have prompted some to revise their welcoming call. In November, Rauner joined 30 other U.S. governors in temporarily halting Syrian refugees in order to “balance our tradition as a state welcoming of refugees while ensuring the safety and security of our citizens.”

In the 2015 calendar year, Syrians made up about 6 percent of all refugees in Illinois, preceded by those from the Democratic Republic of Congo at 12 percent, Iraq at almost 20 percent and Myanmar at nearly 40 percent, according to U.S. Department of State data.

The Zakat Foundation of America, an organization that provides resources for low-income communities, plans on opening a culture center just outside of Evanston this weekend. The center, which has been in the works for six months, is the latest effort by the organization to provide resources for Rohingyan refugees fleeing Myanmar.

“There are two basic things motivating the project,” said Jamie Merchant, public relations coordinator at Zakat. “The specific problems of this uniquely disadvantaged community of the Rohingya and also trying to establish a new angle for approaching the general challenges of resettlement.”

Sahloul, founder of the Syrian Community Network, came to the U.S. as a child in 1982 and said connecting with a refugee community helped ease her transition. Through her non-profit organization, which she started last year to aid in the resettlement of Syrian refugees, Sahloul hopes to provide a similar sense of community for those who may follow.

“The community is what makes you feel whole again when you’ve moved from place to place,” she said. “When you connect with community members who are like you, you start to feel normal and you start connecting with people. It’s a safe space to be yourself.”

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated Akhras Sahloul’s reason for relocation. She is an immigrant. The Daily regrets the error.

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